When Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, not everyone was happy; according to her obituary in the Economist, there were those who "looked askance":

It wasn’t that she was a woman – the first to win the economic prize – but that she gleefully defied conventional categories. For a start she wasn’t a ‘pure’ economist: 

  • "Her own field, institutional economics (or "the study of social dilemmas", as she thought of it), straddled political science, ecology, psychology and anthropology. She liked to learn from all of them, marching boldly across the demarcation lines to hammer out good policy, and she welcomed workshop-partners from any discipline, singing folk songs with them, too, if anyone had a guitar." 

In other words, she was an economist of the real world, rather than of mathematical models and equations. This, surely, is a good thing – especially given the mockery that recent events have made of conventional economics.

Proper conservatives ought to be attracted to Ostrom’s practical approach. However, her work does challenge one of the right’s favourite economic ideas, the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’. This is the theory that in the absence of private ownership, shared resources are inevitably over-exploited to the point of exhaustion. In practice, however, it doesn’t have to be this way and often isn’t: 

  • "Years of fieldwork, by herself and others, had shown her that humans were not trapped and helpless amid diminishing supplies… over time, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks, such as clearing canals or cutting timber, were done together at a certain time. Monitors watched out for rule-breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries." 

So, private ownership need not be condition of good stewardship. Yet, far from contradicting conservative ideas, Ostrom’s work is a vindication: 

  • "Mrs Ostrom put no faith in governments, nor in large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. "Polycentrism" was her ideal. Caring for the commons had to be a multiple task, organised from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms. It had to be discussed face to face, and based on trust." 

Believing the world to contain "a large body of common sense", she argued that local initiative could tackle even the largest problems – up to and including global warming.

But what happens when common sense runs headlong into nonsense – especially the very special kind of nonsense that emanates from the state? Doesn’t this get in the way of what people could achieve if they were left to their own devices?

Politicians are finally understanding that society isn’t the same thing as the state – and that it is from the former, not the latter, that the most effective management of shared resources can be expected. But unless the politicians release these resources from the grip of the bureaucracy, then ordinary people will have nothing to work with: not so much the tragedy of the commons, as the tragedy of the Big Society.

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